College of Veterinary Medicine

Pet Health Topics


This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.

What is rabies?
Rabies is an infectious disease caused by a Rhabdoviridae virus

.How is rabies contracted?
A bite from an infected (rabid) animal transmits rabies. There are highly unusual cases of individuals contracting rabies by inhaling it from bat caves; but those cases are extreme and very rare

  What animals can become rabid?
Any mammal can become infected if they are exposed to rabies. Therefore, a bite from an iguana or a bird, even a wild one, poses no threat of rabies. “Exposed” means bitten by a rabid animal.

If my child is bitten by a pet gerbil do I need to worry about rabies?
No. Small pet mammals such as gerbils, hamsters, and guinea pigs are born and raised in captivity and therefore they are never exposed to the rabies virus. Additionally, if a hamster, gerbil, guinea pig, or even a rat were attacked by a rabid animal they would not likely survive the attack and live long enough to get disease and transmit the virus.

What animals do commonly carry rabies?
Rabies may occur  in bat populations in all of the lower 48 states. In addition to bats, some areas of the US also have rabies maintained in terrestrial wild mammals. These include skunk (mid west mainly), raccoon (eastern US), coyotes (Texas) and foxes (mainly in the Southwest).

How will I know if an animal is rabid?
The only conclusive way to know if an animal is (was) rabid is to identify the virus in brain tissue after the animal is dead. Given that rabies infects the brain it can cause a variety of clinical signs. There are two forms of rabies: dumb and furious. Dumb rabies is observed as animals that are too docile. They are not affectionate, but they will not run from humans. Wild animals normally avoid human contact so if a wild animal does not seem cautious when you approach it, it may be rabid. The other form of rabies, furious rabies, is more commonly seen. This is the stereotypical rabid animal that is vicious and will attack with out provocation. Foaming at the mouth and excessive saliva are not always present! If a mammal acts unusually aggressive, or displays any bizarre behavior, it may be rabid.

How is rabies managed in wildlife?
Currently there are programs in the Northeast and Southern United States to vaccinate wild animals against rabies. The vaccines are oral baits and do nothing to impact bat rabies.

Why should I vaccinate my pet against rabies?
Vaccines against rabies are available for dogs, cats, ferrets, horses, sheep and cattle. The vaccination of house pets has multiple benefits. First, it protects your animal from contracting rabies if a rabid animal attacks them. Second, vaccinated pets form a “barrier population” that minimizes the transmission of rabies from wildlife to humans. Finally, there is no way to test an animal for rabies while it is alive. Therefore, if your pet is unvaccinated, suspected to be rabid and has potentially exposed a person, it would have to be killed in order to test the brain for the rabies virus.

How do you test for rabies and why can’t it be done on a live animal?
Rabies is an unusual virus because it never enters the blood stream. Rabies travels along the nerves from the site of infection, the bite, into the brain, and then concentrates in the salivary glands. This brain infection is why you see unusual behavior in rabid animals. This method of travel makes rabies undetectable in a live animal because rabies is diagnosed by examining the brain microscopically and immunohistochemically (using rabies antibody) to demonstrate the presence of the virus.

How do you treat humans bitten by a rabid animal?
If the person has never been vaccinated against rabies: the wound should be cleaned thoroughly, Human Rabies Immunoglobulin (antibody) should be placed in the wound and injected into the muscle around the wound, and five injections of rabies vaccine should be given over a month. (Vaccine injections are in the arm similar to a tetanus shot.)

If the person has been vaccinated against rabies: The bite wound should be cleaned thoroughly and two vaccine injections should be given. No immunoglobulin is given.

If a person thinks they might have been exposed to rabies but don’t know for certain,
it is best to get the treatment. Rabies is 100% fatal once it reaches the brain. When in
doubt, vaccinate anyway. How do you treat a pet that is bitten by a rabid animal?
If the animal is vaccinated against rabies they should be revaccinated immediately and then kept strictly under the owner’s control and observed for 45 days.

If the animal is unvaccinated they are either killed immediately or kept under
strict quarantine for six months and vaccinated one month before their release.

This Pet Health Topic was written by Sarah Hoggan, Washington State University, Class of 2001 and Dr. Diana Stone, Washington State University.

Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.

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Last Edited: Jan 08, 2016 11:24 AM
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